When Marketing gets confused with Selling

7 Oct

As someone who works in the university sector it’s been interesting how the industry is transitioning into a competitive market-competing for customers. From a decision making perspective I’d argue that this transition phase has produced a significant error at some universities-the confusion of marketing with sales. For arguments sake, this is a focus on a very narrow frame to make a point, a polemic.

A few years ago I was part of research team which explored how students (16+) were making decisions about university courses and one thing was clear from the data- students all wanted to know what they were going to get in return for their money at the end of the course- their employability prospects. This was in 2011, and students knew they were looking at least a 20k investment in their education. I was lucky enough to have access to data from 2008, where the perceived debt\loan burden was nowhere near as high, and the financial crisis (089) was months away. The clear finding from this earlier data was that students prioritised different things in their decision making- enjoying the course, social life, making new friends.

In a crude summary, student decision making in 2008 was more focused on enjoyment, in 2011 decision making more focused on return on investment. Fast forward to 2014, and universities need to sell potential customers a future beyond a degree. So, on this basis, it’s easier to sell a future in Nursing because it’s a visible profession, it has a visible employer (NHS for example), pay scales, progression, pension plans. Also, there are bursaries available which ease the financial burden. However, it is not a profession which is so easy to market.

Sport on the other hand is far more glamorous and very easy to market, but, far harder to sell. It’s harder to sell because the life after university proposition is not so visible; the return on investment is harder to work out. The problem is this- if easy to market subjects don’t sell then marketing gets blamed, or the marketing budgets get cut or increased, subjects get more\less exposure etc. But all of these decisions are based on confusing marketing with sales and an error.

To dissect this confusion, just an idea, a possible approach is to assess the decision making of 2014 students along a single criteria- return on investment. The next step would be a focus on the courses which are able to effectively address this criterion and then market them. This is opposed to focusing on courses which are easy to market, but don’t sell. In the meantime, focus on improving the selling points of courses which are easy to market but conflict with the decision making criterion-clear return on investment; don’t just market them and expect them to sell.

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